Here’s what Lake Geneva and Elkhart Lake have in common: Both small resort towns have the word “Lake” in the name, and both are in Wisconsin.
That’s where the similarities end, but each is popular with Midwesterners looking for a fun-filled lake retreat.
Elkhart Lake, a tiny village about 150 miles north of Chicago, is the kind of place where well-worn bathing suits drip dry over balcony railings after a fun day of splashing in pristine, emerald-hued waters. In Lake Geneva, trendy bathing suits are more likely to be laundered by staff at the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa following a heavenly spa day.
In Elkhart Lake, families order wood-fired pizza at laid-back eateries like the Lake Street Café. In Lake Geneva, couples dress to the nines for dinner at Ristorante Brissago, the Grand Geneva’s fine-dining restaurant that serves upscale Italian cuisine.
You get the idea. Whether you go posh or low-key, both these Midwest resort towns have their charms.
A teenager with a blonde ponytail leaps from the Walworth mail boat with the grace of a ballet dancer, sprints down a weathered wooden dock, crams mail in the box, and flies back onto the moving vessel without missing a beat.
Whew! Applause from passengers.
That’s how mail is delivered each summer in Lake Geneva, about 80 miles north of Chicago, from June 15 to September 15. These speedy, agile “mail jumpers” are so popular, Lake Geneva Cruise Line takes passengers out onto 5,000-acre Geneva Lake to see the show.
Before roads were built near the lake, the mail boat was essential.
“The mail delivery now is more of a tradition than a necessity,” says Ellen Burling, assistant general manager of Lake Geneva Cruise Line. “Not everyone on the lake gets the mail boat delivery, only those that request it and have a pier we can safely navigate onto.”
Kids love the mail jumpers, and families with lake homes sometimes sit on the dock awaiting their special delivery.
Passengers frequently ask if the jumpers ever take an unexpected swim due to ill-timed footing.
“They very rarely fall in,” Burling said. “And if they do, it might be a little bit on purpose on a hot day.”
The 2.5-hour narrated tour offers more than the spectacle of acrobatic mail delivery. It also shines a light on the town’s history as a summer playground for Chicago’s Gilded Age millionaires, earning it the moniker “The Newport of the West.”
The town has many modern summer homes, too, but it retains an old school vibe.
Stone Manor, a 12,000-square-foot Italianate mansion built by Chicago real estate tycoon Otto Young, is the grand dame of all the Victorian lakefront homes. Passengers scramble to get Instagram-worthy photos of the elegant, sprawling property.
Lake Geneva School of Cooking
Elite Victorians would have had no interest in the Lake Geneva School of Cooking. They had cooks, but if you gave yours the summer off, grab an apron and let Chef John Bogan show you how it’s done.
Bring your disco mojo, because Bogan’s class is a party. When the Commodores croon that ‘70s classic “Brick House,” you’ll “shake it down, shake it down now” while you stir and slice.
“When my kids were younger, we would cook with music, mirror balls, and strobe lights,” Bogan chuckled. “I have transferred this tradition to the Lake Geneva School of Cooking.”
On the menu now is rustic ratatouille, a French stew chock full of summer veggies. Bogan instructs his group on prepping fresh, local produce from the Lake Geneva Farmer’s Market, and soon everyone has a colorful pile of diced eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes on his or her chop board.
“The farm-to-table buzz is relatively new,” Bogan said, “but trained chefs have been following this cooking philosophy their entire lives,” sourcing as much food as possible from local farms instead of distribution companies.
When the ratatouille is in the oven, the cooks start on the pork au poivre (pork with pepper) with a brandy mushroom reduction. The heavy bass from “Give Up the Funk” reverberates around the kitchen.
Of course, the best part of any cooking class is enjoying the fruits (in this case, vegetables) of your labor. Ratatouille perfectly seasoned with herbs de provence is the best of summer on a plate. Pair it with one of Bogan’s fluffy three-cheese popovers, and you have a complete meal. This bunch had to save room for the piece de resistance: the pork au poivre. Tender, pepper-encrusted meat drizzled with rich, creamy mushroom sauce fills the dining room with an enticing aroma.
Just when everyone’s saying they can’t eat another bite, apple cobbler with walnuts and raisins is served.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Bogan did more than hunker down with Netflix. He wrote a cookbook: “Chef John Bogan Recipes from the Seasons of My Life.”
When you go to Lake Geneva
Grand Geneva Resort & Spa: This sprawling, upscale resort features two championship golf courses, horseback riding, and scooter tours. Classic car rentals are a new amenity. 7036 Grand Geneva Way, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
Pier 290: Lakefront restaurant serving steaks and seafood. 1 Liechty Drive, Williams Bay, Wisconsin.
Lake Geneva School of Cooking: 727 Geneva St., Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
Lake Geneva Cruise Line: Offers several tours on Geneva Lake, including the popular U.S. Mail Tour. Passengers meet at the Riviera Docks. 812 Wrigley Drive, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
At Elkhart Lake, city dwellers often sit contentedly on their balcony at the Shore Club, formerly The Victorian Village, sipping that first cup of coffee in a tranquil, traffic-free zone. Only the soft panting of dogs on their morning walk and a gentle breeze rustling through the trees can be heard at this lakeside resort.
Unless it’s a race day at Road America. Then, you’d better cram in your ear plugs because the wild howling of engines at this motorsports complex will blow through your peaceful morning like a rocket launch.
But that’s what brings people here.
This picturesque hamlet has attracted racing enthusiasts for more than 70 years. Open road sports car races were held in Elkhart Lake from 1950-1952, the brainchild of Jim Kimberly and other members of the Chicago Region of the Sports Car Club of America. Top race car drivers from around the world came to compete, attracting tens of thousands of spectators.
Two overlapping open-road race circuits are on the National Register of Historic Places, and you can explore them (at a much slower pace) by hopping on a bicycle rented at the upscale Osthoff Resort.
Fourteen historic markers spread over approximately 6.5 miles describe the events that thrilled thousands who sat with nothing but barricades of hay bales to separate them from lightning-fast cars that could barrel out of control at any minute.
Kick off your bicycle ride in front of the marker at the Lake Street Cafe, then follow additional markers out of town into Wisconsin’s picturesque dairy farms skirting Lake Elkhart.
A marker noting the infamous “hard left,” a dangerous curve on the 1951-52 circuit, is in front of the Stop-Inn Tavern, a bar teeming with racing memorabilia. It’s a good spot to hydrate with a local brew.
Safety concerns led to the ban of open-road racing, but Road America, a 4-mile, closed-circuit course that opened in 1955, keeps the racing tradition alive. This 640-acre motor sport facility in the rolling hills of Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine region hosts a wide range of racing events, showcasing everything from vintage cars to high-performance cars of the future.
Whether you prefer your summer getaway to be kicked back or action packed, Wisconsin has got a lake resort town for you to discover.
When you go to Lake Elkhart
The Shore Club: This laid-back resort has a vintage vibe. 276 Victorian Village Drive, Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.
The Osthoff Resort: 101 Osthoff Ave., Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.
Lake Street Café: This restaurant serves everything from pizza to T-bone steak and boasts a surprisingly impressive wine list. 21 S. Lake St., Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.
Stop-Inn Tavern at Siebkens Resort: 284 S. Lake St., Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.
Road America: Numerous racing events are scheduled this summer. N7390 State Highway 67, Plymouth, Wisconsin. For more information on Elkhart Lake’s historic open road race circuits, visit historicracecircuits.com
Ice Age Trail: Hike a 3.35-mile segment of the nearly 1,200-mile Ice Age National Scenic Trail as it crosses the Labudde Creek State Fishery Area in Elkhart Lake.
Photos by Wesley Teo, Kristen Tucker, and provided by Visit Lake Geneva and Elkhart Lake Tourism.
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